Uzbek President Islam Karimov, America's new and close ally in its campaign against terrorism, is a strict but compassionate man.

Practice Islam in a manner Karimov deems misguided and go to prison. But beg the president's pardon and the sentence can drop from 16 years to 12. Survive a spell in a camp where torture and deprivation are well-documented, repent, and maybe get amnesty.

Karimov says the policies are crucial to his own war on terrorism. But Uzbekistan's disdain for religious freedoms and human rights has earned it censure from the United States and its Western allies.

The concern among human-rights activists is whether the U.S. will back off its criticism and allow Karimov to crack down even harder. With the number of U.S. troops based on Uzbek soil rising past 3,500, Karimov is a gracious host in a strategically important place.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was in Uzbekistan on Saturday, where he spoke with Karimov. On a visit in October, the men's discussions apparently did not touch on human-rights issues.

A deadly defiance

Bosit Ibragimov knew about Karimov's policies three years ago when he was being sentenced to a notorious prison camp in western Uzbekistan.

Ibragimov, then 29, was advised to admit his guilt before the state and plead for mercy. But arguing that his studies of the Koran and his gatherings in a local mosque were nothing requiring confession, Ibragimov did not seek compassion.

Now Ibragimov is dead, and the only apologies come from his father.

"I asked my son's forgiveness for not doing enough to keep him alive," said Azimjon Ibragimov, whose care package of food and medicine was rejected by officials at a hospital in Tashkent, the capital.

"They said they had orders from above," the father said after burying his son recently in their Fergana Valley city of Namangan. "This is a hospital. What is the point of giving them medicine if you do not give them food?"

Similar questions plague thousands of Uzbek families who have lost loved ones to the grave, to prison or to life on the run. The most common: What has my son (or father, or brother, or husband) done wrong?

In the Uzbek legal sense, most of them have violated a vague statute that makes it a crime to challenge the state and the constitutional order.

"Article 159," says Bosit Ibragimov's mother, specifying the statute that doomed her son in April 1998.

Article 159 comes up repeatedly in conversations with Uzbek families who are short a man or two around the house. It rolls off their tongue as easily, if not in quite the same context, as Americans might invoke the 1st Amendment.

Nasiba Kakharova's father, husband and two brothers are in labor camps across Uzbekistan. The women get a monthly state stipend of 3,000 soms (about $6 by the official government rate and half that on the black market). That hardly feeds the household's six children, ages 4 to 9.

Kakharova, 26, lives a few blocks from the Ibragimovs in Namangan. Her men all violated Article 159, though exactly how remains unclear even to them. The prosecutor's testimony at the trial of two of the men focused on a 1990 gathering attended by about a dozen people interested in the Koran. At the time, Uzbekistan still was part of the Soviet Union.

Bosit Ibragimov attended that gathering too. That was part of the evidence used to sentence him to 16 years in prison and send him to a brutal place called Jaslyk not far from the Aral Sea. Except for a couple of stints at a Tashkent hospital, Jaslyk would be Ibragimov's last home.

Years of abuses